Beautiful HDR–STEP 2

This is continuation from previous post discussing how I create HDR images.

It is so easy, anyone can do it!

The first step reviewed basic requirements and ways to shoot actual images that will be used to create final HDR. If you missed it or need a refresher, please go back and review it at Step 1: Go and Shoot Your Photo page.

If you are already familiar with how to use Photomatix then you can go to Step 3: Do the final post processing with Adobe CS5.

Step2: Take your photos into your HDR Digital Processing Room – Use HDR processing software to create initial HDR image.

In this post I’ll talk about basic techniques to combine your set of bracketed photos and create initial HDR photo. There are multiple software solutions available that will allow you to create HDR photos. Even Photoshop CS5 has this functionality now. I have CS5 and I tried to use it for HDR and didn’t have good results with it. I never tried any other HDR software packages besides Photomatix. I started using it when I first started with HDR, it produced good results, it was not super expensive, their support was very responsive when I had issues with it and over the last 18 month I got at least three free upgrades with them. So overall I’m very happy with this software package.

Before we get into discussion of how to use this software I want to touch base on how I store files. When you shoot in brackets, the number of files can add up very quickly. My policy on how store files and access them is very simple and straightforward. For every day that I shoot I create a folder and name it with that’s day date, for example for January 1, 2012 I have folder ‘1-1-12’. All photos that I took during that day I copied to that folder. Going back I have folders for the last 10 years, all on the same drive and I can quickly browse through them whenever I need it. To see the RAW files I use Adobe Bridge, which came with Photoshop CS5, it is easy to navigate and quite simple to use. Also, if you wonder about backups, I backup everything to other two drives and keep them in separate places so in case anything happens to one, I’ll have access to all my files on the other. So far I used only around 350GB of storage for all of my files and with 1TB drives I think I have another year or two of storage availability before I have to upgrade all those drives to something larger.

All right, so lets say I just copied all files from recent photo walk to the appropriate folder, the first thing I’d usually do is to stack them up with little nifty feature available in Bridge (Stacks->Auto-Stack Panorama/HDR). This will auto-stack all of my bracketed photos in groups of three images. This way I can review them in more manageable way and decide what to do with it.

When I have time to process some photos I usually open Bridge and browse through different folders. If I see something that I have not processed yet and if it strikes my mood at that point as something to work on then I’ll attempt to process it. Sometimes I’m on the roll and can process 4-5 photos in one set, sometimes I just look and find everything not worthy of processing, maybe attempt some and quickly discard it for whatever reason. I find that I have to be in the right mood and set of mind to do it, have some creative strike, otherwise it is futile.

If I find a set that I want to process then first thing I’ll do is open Photomatix Pro. Then in Bridge I’ll check the file names of the photos I want to process. Switch to Windows Browser and go to the folder where those files are located. Select three files and drag them into Photomatix. That’s right. I do not do any type of conversions on those files, I drag RAW files straight into the Photomatix. It handles them just fine.

For the first example I’m going to use the following three photos and discuss Phototamix Deghosting capabilities:

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image39 image40 image42

As you might be able to notice, there are two bike riders moving away from me, so each frame will have them at a different spot.

So now, the main process starts in Photomatix and you have to make choices on how to process your files.

As you drop bracketed files into Photomatix, it will ask you what you want to do with it. First choice is a good one, just click OK here.

Next it will ask you to choose bracketed photos. Since we already dropped in our photos, we’ll see them as part of selection. Just click OK here.


This dialog box will come up and you have to make some choices.

The top selection for “Align source images” is a good one to use and I never change it from its default settings.

Depending on the scene that I was shooting I have to make a choice on the “Remove ghosts” option. I always keep it On, but there is a choice on use automated deghosting or manual. On majority of my images I let Photomatix to deghost my images. On some I use Selective Deghosting. If you choose to use automated and click on OK, then Photomatix will do it for you as best as it can, but if you have a lot of moving objects between each capture, you might want to go manual route and choose which bracket to use for different moving parts. It is very powerful feature of Photomatix software.

Most of the time I keep all other settings at it default and click OK.

In our current example I chose to use Selective Deghosting and we will see the following screen:


As you can see the combination of three photos stack bike riders next to each other and we will need to make a choice what areas to deghost and which source image to use for each of those areas.

The selection works easy, as you can read on provided instructions, we just drag around and select what we want to deghost. As you can see in the following image, I created two selections:


and if I click on Preview Deghosting, it will provide us with the following result:


As you can see it did pretty nice job of getting those ghosts out from the image. One thing you might notice is shadows from the bikes, especially, the closer one is a bit odd, it is running in front of the bike, so we need to fix this by doing a larger selection of the area. Lets change it to this:


with the following deghsoting results:


This is much better. But we gave control to Photomatix on which source image to use for deghosting. Lets return to selection mode, change it a bit and see if current selection is the best. To do that you need to right click on each selection and choose “Set another photo for selection”, which will open three images with little check mark indicating which image is used for the current selection. In our case Photomatix is using the bracket with normal exposure (ie 0). I’m going to select +2 and see if it might have better result, here how it will look:


While the closer to us bike looks ok, the other bike has some type of glow around it. Also, after closer examination it appears that the sky around the closer bike is not matching the rest of it. I’m going to switch back to the default selection and go with that. The point here is that you have control of the source file for the ghosting area.

Automatic Deghosting on the same three images. I ran these files through automated deghosting and the result is shown on the right. As you can see, it used the same positions for bikes, but the shadows from those bikes are completely messed up.image116

At this point Photomatix will do a lot of processing and it will provide us the main editing screen where we can go nuts at our image. In a few moments we will see the following screen:


We can break this screen into to the following four main areas:


1. Preset Thumbnails. In Preset Thumbnails I always click on Enhancer – Default icon to bring all settings to is default. Photomatix keeps adjustment settings from the last session and those settings more likely are not good for the current image. This section also has capability to create your own presets and apply them to your images. While back I found a lot of presets somewhere on the Internet and I use to use them to create my HDR – bad choice. Do not be lazy. Do not use any presets. More likely they will overcook your photo, oversaturate it and will make them look too unrealistic. So I use the Photomatix default setting as starting point and go from there.

2. Histogram. This is just for your reference to see where your image is on histogram. You want to keep it all inside like a nice mountain.

3. Image area. This is where you see results of all adjustments.

4. Adjustments. This is the main area in Photomatix and you have a lot of control on how your image will look by manipulating different sliders. This is where you’ll spend most time in this program and can lead to very satisfying results or can be a source of a lot of frustration and total collapse of the entire photo. My general rule of thumb for settings in this area are the following:


    • Strength.I bring it up to somewhere between 90-100.
    • Color Saturation.This is dangerous slider if using it too much. Oversaturated photos might look cool at first but then they do hurt your eye. I usually have this slider somewhere between 50-70.
    • Luminosity.This one is really depends on the image and it goes hand-hand with the next slider – Detail Contrast. Sometimes I have it all the way down to –3 or –4 and sometime bring it up to +5. You have to move it around and see what kind of effect it makes on your photo.
    • Detail Contrast.I like to bring details out. The higher you bring this slider, the darker your photo will become. So it affects the setting in the Luminosity slider. You have to kind of play between these two together and see where you find the most balance that appeals to your eye.
    • Lighting Adjustments.I rarely use this setting. I always try it and see what it does to my image and for some reason almost never choose anything but default setting.
    • I rarely do anything with Smooth Highlightsslider.
    • White Point.I usually try to see what type of affect it makes on the image, in most situations end up keeping it at its default setting, but once in a while it actually can save the image. Try and see what it does.
    • Black Point.Default on it is Zero and on many images I’ll bring it up slightly, just to introduce a bit more black into the image. Not every time, but in many situations you have to look at the original photo and realize that there are spots there that should be dark and not everything should be highlighted, which HDR tries to do.
    • Gamma.Rarely touch it.
    • Temperature.Rarely touch it.
    • Micro-Smoothing.I usually move it a bit and see if it produces any noticeable results. If it does then I keep there, otherwise it is at its default setting.
    • Saturation Highlights and Saturation Shadows. Sometimes I try see what effect they make and more likely keep them at default settings.

For our current example I used the following settings and have this image:

image130 image127I’m actually not happy with the result of this image and will not proceed with it right now.
It was a good example to show deghosting capabilities.

Well, as I said above, I’m not super happy with results from this photo. I do not like the grey hollow around each biker and sun is definitely should be cropped out. Can you see the grey I’m talking about? This is one of the not so good side effects with HDR processing. If it can’t be fixed via Photomatix then it might be possible to get rid of it in CS5 by combining multiple layers. In this situation we’d have to pretty much replace entire sky and cloud area to get rid of those hollows. I’m not in the mood to do that right at the moment. I might come back to this image sometime again and see what I can do to fix it.

Blue Skies and HDR in general are not very friendly. In fact, most of the time HDR will screw blue skies so bad you wish you didn’t do HDR. Many times you have to mask it out via CS5 by bringing blue sky from one of the original RAW files. In above example I’ll probably attempt to do that sometime in the future when I have a bit more patience and time on my hands.

Instead today, I’ll attempt to process another photo from a different day and hopefully we have better results to take us into the final step.

For this example I’m going to use the following three photos:

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image611 image12 image18

This photo is not static, there is some movement in the clouds and crushing waves. But this movement is not significant and it is not formed of something everyone expects to see, clouds and waves can be of any form and shape. For that reason I’m going to use Automated deghosting feature in Photomatix software. After Photomatix did it initial processing we’ll be presented with main editing screen:


on which I did the following adjustments with resulting image inside of Photomatix software. When you are happy with results you have to actually process this image to create the output file. Click on Process button to do that.


After processing we need to save final result to hard drive. This is what I have after processing original three finals via Photomatix software:


The thing to remember is that file produced by Photomatix is not the final product in my workflow. It might not look super sharp and might still be missing that little extra kick or might require to do a lot of extra work by masking out different parts from one of the original RAW photos.

The final step in our three step process is to get this image into Photoshop CS5 and do the final adjustments.

Let me know if you have questions or suggestions on how to improve this walkthrough.

Next is Step3: Do the final post processing with Adobe CS5.

19 thoughts on “Beautiful HDR–STEP 2

  1. I’ve been hearing a lot of photographers complaining about HDR photography, like it’s somehow not worthy of the effort that goes into it. Personally, I think it is a beautiful artistic expression of photography that takes the art to a new level. Excellent tutorial! I’m not there yet, but I look forward to the day that I can give this a try.

    1. I’m with you on this. There is no such thing as “pure” photography. In the past photographers were dependent on film and it qualities, they would go into dark room and do all kind of processing. These days with DSLRs every photo that comes from DSLR is processed by the camera firmware and then via some type of postprocessing. So nothing is pure and everything has sometype of effect done to it.

  2. I have both Photomatix and Nik HDR Efex Pro, and alternate between them, depending on how much work an HDR image needs. I tend to use Photomatix if there is a lot of ghosting because it does such a nice job with that. But I like Nik HDR Efex if there are specific areas that need work because of their control point technology. Nik’s product is a little more expensive, but I think well worth it. Like you, I have never gotten the results from the Photoshop Merge to HDR tool that I wanted.

    1. I hear that Nik software is pretty good. It is advertized everywhere. I might try it sometime later this year, when have some extra time on my hands. Thanks for recommendation.

  3. Hi Dimitri. Saw that you had liked on of my blog posts, so I decided to come and have a look at yours. Do like your HDR photography, especially the fact that you keep it as natural looking as possible. So many people go crazy and make their pictures look ‘radioactive’

  4. Hi Dimitri,

    I would like to learn how to remove the halo effect on my HDR pictures. Can you please share some of your tips? Thanks

  5. Excellent tutorial. This is really helpful. I’m trying to learn to create HDR for some time now. This will definitely help me.

  6. One question, this tutorial explains HDR images with Photomatix which I just googled isn’t a free software like GIMP. Any alternative to Photomatix? Can’t really afford photomatix right now.


  7. Thanks for introducing me to the world of HDR. Im enjoying this kind of photography. HDR just makes your subjects and scenes so much more beautiful. Thank you!!!

  8. Greetings Dimitri , i want to thank you for sharing you knowledge and workflow , for free no less . I only recently discovered HDR photography and was immediately hooked . Your step by step breakdown is one of the simplest yet very detailed i’ve found to date . Thanks again for sharing , i’ll be checking your blog regularly for updates . Take care .

  9. Thank you for taking the time to create this tutorial. I’ve been experimenting with HDR using Photoshop Elements 10. While it works nicely with landscapes that are on a tripod, I would really like to take some photos I bracketed while on an ocean cruise. I bracketed them at 1.3 spacing because I expected glare off the water would cause the exposure to be too dark. I found most of the time, the middle of the three images was just fine.
    Trying to process them as HDR, though, with the cruise ship moving causes the images to not line up properly, leaving a “stepped” appearance. I suspect I could figure out how to crop and mark the three images so that they would stack properly with only minor changes, but I wonder if Photomatix might have a tool that does that, sort of like the automatic ghost removal. Thanks for any feedback you might provide.

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